Wyatt, Edith Franklin
WYATT, Edith Franklin
Born 14 September 1873, Tomah, Wisconsin; died October 1958, Chicago, Illinois
Daughter of Franklin and Marian La Grange Wyatt
A self-designated "middle-class American," Edith Franklin Wyatt spent her earliest years in Midwestern towns where her father was a railroad and mining engineer. Settled in a modest, neighborly Chicago home in the 1880s, she and her two younger sisters shared wide-ranging interests with their mother, who was later a privately published poet. Wyatt attended Bryn Mawr from 1892 to 1894 and taught at a local girls' school for five years. Wyatt's first publication, "Three Stories of Contemporary Chicago" (1900), caught the attention of William Dean Howells, who publicly praised her early fiction and remained an admiring friend. While teaching at Hull House and participating in the Little Room, Chicago's preeminent salon, she produced most of her fiction during this decade.
After her McClure's report on the 1909 Cherry Mine fire, Wyatt was in great demand during the 1910s as a social commentator and Progressive activist, promoting the causes of working-class women, child laborers, victims of the Eastland pleasure-boat disaster, and suffragists. A founding board member of Poetry, her concurrent literary work included a report on working women's budgets, a documentary play, poems, and literary criticism. Socially conscientious but temperamentally retiring, Wyatt lived with her mother and maintained a few close friendships with people who shared her commitments. Her creative talent seems to have exhausted itself in 1923, when she published her second novel after a year as assistant editor for McClure's. Her remaining work was mostly retrospective; she memorialized deceased colleagues and Chicago's past and also collected her earlier short stories.
The stories first published in Every One His Own Way (1901) demonstrate Wyatt's attention to the everyday strengths and distinctive mannerisms of urban ethnic types as well as her exposure of genteel intolerance. Recurring characters and neighborhood settings link together stories ranging from tragedy to satire. "A Matter of Taste" is representative: it recounts a literary critic's disdain for the participative, popular musical tastes of a German American couple, while embodying Wyatt's own characteristic perspective in the clear-sighted observations of the critic's sister.
A similar dichotomy between conventionality and wholesomeness informs Wyatt's first novel, True Love (1903). Snobbish Norman Hubbard—whose "sepulchral" Chicago home traps visitors in vacuous conversation—engages himself to an equally convention-bound woman, until they can no longer stand each other's narrowness. A second romance between unpretentious Chicagoan Emily Marsh, whose simple family home welcomes friends to billiards and cards, and an equally ordinary country man, leads to marriage.
Wyatt believed heterogeneous Americans share primarily the experience of migration: "Movement through a variety of country" is, she declares, the unifying theme of the poems in The Wind in the Corn (1917). "To a River God" exemplifies her poetry's dynamic attention to geography, unity-in-diversity theme, and ritualistic, chanting rhythms, which occasionally disintegrate into sing-song. Most admired were Wyatt's urban poems: "November in the City" and "City Equinoctial" epitomize her unconventional portrayal of natural cycles in city as well as country scenes.
Original observation and social perspective mark Wyatt's literary criticism and social commentary. A well-chosen selection in Great Companions (1917) demonstrates her concerns with national literary culture, writers' attitudes toward women, and autobiographies of working people. "The Dislike of Human Interest" clarifies the political basis for her objections to standardized literary stereotypes.
Invisible Gods (1923) tries to combine Wyatt's fictional talents with her political commitments in a sociological novel about three generations of a Chicago family. But an uncharacteristically loose, episodic structure and wordy prose undercut her uncompromising vision and talent for characterization. Wyatt combined a pluralistic appreciation of common people and regional integrity with original observation and satiric humor in her fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and social commentaries. Her early fiction and essays represent her best work, as fine as that of Howells and undeservedly ignored by literary historians and critics.
The Whole Family (with W. D. Howells, et al., 1907). Making Both Ends Meet (with S. A. Clark, 1911). Art and the Worth While (with R. M. Lovett, et al., 1929). The Satyr's Children (1939). Two Fairy Tales: The Pursuit of Happiness and The Air Castle (n.d.).
The manuscripts of Edith Franklin Wyatt are housed in the Newberry Library in Chicago, and include both correspondence and three boxes of published and unpublished works.
Boston Transcript (22 Dec. 1917). Harper's (Oct. 1901). New York Tribune (11 Mar. 1923). North American Review (May 1903, Mar. 1917). Poetry (Jan. 1918).
—SIDNEY H. BREMER